September 25, 2007
RALEIGH - One of the explanations Tom O'Brien frequently gave for leaving the comfort of Boston College for N.C. State was the greater access to talent he would have at a large state school in the South. It's looking more and more like he was referring to the talent he thought he could bring to State, not the talent he had on hand.
To his credit, O'Brien held off on saying it longer than most coaches would. Even in the week leading up to N.C. State's game against Clemson, he had declined an opportunity to comment on the amount of talent he inherited when he took over in Raleigh.
Still, it's almost inevitable that a first-year coach of a struggling football team will play the "cupboard was bare when I arrived" card at some point, to explain why his team isn't winning.
For O'Brien, that moment came in the aftermath of State's 42-20 loss to Clemson, a game that wasn't really even that close. That's when O'Brien, who's been refreshingly up-front during his press conferences (with the notable exception of injury discussions), couldn't hold back no longer.
"We're going to have to recruit players that play like their guys," O'Brien said. "We're just not there right now. When you get overwhelmed the way we did, it still comes down somewhat to personnel. You can coach guys all you want, but if they're in the right gap, the right technique, and get run over and miss a tackle, it means you'd better be better football players."
Translation: "My staff and I will take some of the blame for the 1-3 start, but come on, there's only so much we can do with what we have."
It was the first, real, on-the-record confirmation of what O'Brien's coaches had been saying behind the scenes: They're not too impressed with what Chuck Amato and the previous Wolfpack staff left behind.
Here's one way to measure the opinion O'Brien and Company have for the talent evaluation of Amato and Company. Take a look at which players from the recruiting class of 2007 - a joint effort that was begun by Amato and finished by O'Brien - actually are getting playing time this fall.
Eight players who were not with the N.C. State program last fall got onto the field in at least one of the Wolfpack's first five games. Six of them (true freshmen Jake Vermiglio, Curtis Underwood and Thomas Barnes, junior college transfers Antoine Holmes and R.J. Armstrong, and graduate school transfer Steven Hauschka) were brought in by O'Brien's staff. One, defensive tackle Markus Kuhn, was sort of a joint production. He originally was offered by Amato, lost somewhat in the shuffle during the coaching change, and then re-committed to O'Brien. So give Amato a half-point there.
The only new addition who was purely Amato's is wide receiver Owen Spencer, and even he comes with a bit of an asterisk. Spencer actually signed with State in the spring of 2005 but didn't make it to Raleigh until January 2006 because of academics. So he already had spring practice under his belt coming into the fall.
O'Brien already has played half of the dozen new players he brought to State, many of whom he picked up in the 23rd hour of recruiting, when talent is scarce. He's played just 1.5 (Spencer and Kuhn) of the 13 new players (counting Spencer) brought in by Amato's staff. Those numbers speak volumes.
There are two other factors to consider when analyzing the O'Brien regime versus Amato's.
First, it's fair to say that the Amato-recruited players - from the seniors through the freshmen - don't exactly fit the schemes the new staff likes to use.
Defensively, State now is trying to get players who previously had been recruited to play an aggressive, bump-and-run style to adapt to coordinator Mike Archer's system, which is heavy on zone coverage and prefers players who can read and react.
Offensively, this State team has speed at the skill positions - more than O'Brien typically had at Boston College - but it's nowhere close to having the type of line that can execute the power running games coordinator Dana Bible used to construct for the Eagles. The Wolfpack probably could benefit from a little smoke-and-mirrors in its attack, but O'Brien and Bible always have stressed out-executing opponents - and pounding them physically - over out-scheming them.
Second, it's not as if State's talent level was always this low. If O'Brien had inherited the Wolfpack offense of 2003 or the defense of 2004, he would have nothing to complain about, publicly or privately.
But the well-documented coaching attrition that hurt Amato with Xs and Os also crippled him in recruiting. By the time the end came, there were two men, recruiting coordinator Curt Cignetti and defensive line coach Todd Stroud, who were doing all of the heavy lifting on the recruiting trail. That's just not enough to bring in the depth of talent needed in each class.
STAFF FILLED WITH RECRUITERS
The good news for State is that O'Brien's staff appears to have many more options when it comes to coaches who know how to recruit.
In addition to recruiting coordinator Jerry Petercuskie, running backs coach Jason Swepson (who landed blue-chip athlete Brandon Barnes), tight ends coach Jim Bridge (the primary recruiter on four-star linebacker commitment Terrell Manning) and linebackers coach Andy McCollum (who gave State's recruiting class a kick-start by getting a commitment from linebacker Dwayne Maddox) all have reputations as solid recruiters.
Keep an eye on McCollum, in particular. He's had a reputation as a strong recruiter going all the way back to his days as a linebacker coach at Baylor.
McCollum already has paid dividends by reeling in Maddox (and by helping to nail down Manning's commitment), but his greatest value likely will come through the extensive contacts he cultivated in the fertile recruiting grounds of Georgia and north Florida during his days as the head coach at Middle Tennessee. McCollum already has landed three players from that area, including freshman linebacker Thomas Barnes, who could be the sleeper of the Wolfpack's 2007 class.